Out of the box

| 12/03/2011 | 0 Comments

Nicol-André Berdellé outlines a new approach to desalination based on bionic principles derived from the tropical rainforests.

Nicol-André BerdelléAlmost 20 years after peak water has occurred in Saudi Arabia, the expectation is that desalination technology will now be a primary enabler of development for the Gulf region as a whole. Though desalination has been blamed for pushing salinity levels in the Arabian Gulf to a level where it has endangered marine life, it is not the desalination process per se which is causing this problem; rather, it is the re-salination of the water body after extraction of freshwater

Enter a highly efficient desalination technology, which sets the mark at 1.8 kWh input energy for one m³ of distilled water, combining the advantages of natural evaporation, atmospheric water generation and greenhouse-design, representing a synthesis of over 140 scientific topics in an unprecedented effort of Multi-Disciplinary Engineering (MDE).

This new concept is closely tied to bionic principles, especially the water services of a tropical rainforest. The result of the consistently followed method is a ‘sub-tech’ waterworks with the investment cost of a greenhouse rather than that of an industrial park. The ‘Integrated Bio-techtural System’ (IBTS) does not borrow from other concepts or projects which have been featured in the media, or have been built successfully like the ‘seawater greenhouse.’ However, it does utilise the same physical and biological principles. For example, some of the basic principles of the ‘Seawater Foundation’ are inherent to IBTS too.

The quantum of financial investment depends on the amount of features the complex will have. An investor can choose from various possibilities within a broad corridor of feasibility. The waterworks concept is so simple and versatile that even the Construction Site Setup (CSS) exhibits the crucial functions in a preliminary, slimmed down version. The CSS is part of a three-stage plan to accomplish the final building allowing for instant implementation of the waterworks and IBTS. Even before construction starts, the CSS can be fully operational showcasing the waterworks and acting as a real size laboratory for fine tuning of the facility, saving a fortune in further research & development (R&D) and avoiding the mistakes and implementation risks that typically occur.

The final prospect is a large ‘greenhouse’ made possible by the superior design of a tent. The structural properties of a tent allow for the most economic construction of voluminous buildings. The Thole poles of this ‘Greenhouse Tent’ are 30-150 metres high. An array of engineering solutions and inventions for the structural elements of the building render it an entirely new class of membrane architecture, and at the same time, make the concept financially realistic and most of all, ecologically sound.

Based on comparative studies of the hygrothermics, mass flows and various cycles in the IBTS, 21,000 litres of fresh water can be produced daily per hectare of groundcover. This amount is, in order of magnitude, higher than any other technology in this class and only surpassed by industrial desalination plants. The project, as a whole, is intended and powerful enough to cover vast areas of desert in the long run. It is a desert-greening master plan that will not hit natural or physical limits, regardless of the proportions it will grow into.

The modular system is based on the water demand of a residential home. These residential estates are part of the IBTS. The autonomous modules are fully adapted to the size of the private property as well as the different volumes and qualities of water required. Although the modules are self-sufficient, they do not work in closed cycles. On the input side there is seawater and sunlight, and on the output side salt, freshwater and the produce of the agricultural plantations. It is an ‘Excess Services Cycle Adapted to the Physical Environment (ESCAPE)’, and provides utilities within a closed cycle and excess services for the environment it is part of.

This description will sound outrageous to the qualified water or energy expert. But neither the background nor the method or target of the system is ordinary. The ‘Integrated Bio-techtural System’ is the messenger of a new era in which MDE will yield solutions outside of the box. Solutions like these emerged in the beginning of the industrial age when scientists had a much broader range of knowledge and plenty more time to work on their inventions. In this manner there are more and more passionate engineers today taking advantage of the status quo to break out of the norms and regulations on the hunt for true sustainability.


A sub-tech waterworks utility

  • 1.8 kWh input for 1m³ of distilled water with atmospheric water generation
  • 21 m³water per day and hectare groundcover
  • Investment cost of a greenhouse
  • Small-scale, modular system
  • Excess Services Cycle Adapted to the Physical Environment (ESCAPE)
  • Consistent biomimicy of an entire rainforest
  • Integrated Bio-Techtural System (IBTS)
  • Multi-Disciplinary Engineering (MDE)
  • Integration of Life-Support Systems (LSS)
  • Construction Site Setup (CSS) is a real size laboratory
  • New class of membrane technology and architecture
  • Material-Input-Per-Service (MIPS) positive
  • Desert-greening master plan
  • No natural or physical limits in advanced stages of growth
Desalination in context 

Desertification is still advancing in the MENA region. Even the Rub`Al Khali has become dryer for the last 1,000 years. Tremendous efforts in afforestation and agriculture are being undertaken in wide areas of the Arabian Peninsula. But these efforts are dependent on massive amounts of resources, which are only feasible as long as fossil reserves last. In Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, most of the agricultural fields and plantations are highly (90%) dependent on fossil water. According to satellite imagery, there are 21,000 pivot irrigation units in Saudi Arabia for an irrigated area of 0.5-3.1 km² each. Experts say the reserves of fossil water can be accessed until the year 2015, after which water tables would have fallen so deep that the operating cost for the pumps will outlive the earnings from crop yields. The irrigation efforts on 32,000 km² of land in 1993 are in decline and will finally break down after 2015. Then infrastructure worth two digit numbers in billions will be left standing in the desert.

Aquifers close to the surface that are replenished by rain have been depleted so much that water tables are dropping down. They are falling in the range of meters every year, resulting in ingress of seawater. There has been no significant solution for this depletion.

Peak water in Saudi Arabia (-14,9km³/yr) has already occurred, not this year, but in 1992. It has occurred in the UAE (-2,2km/yr), Yemen (-2,5km/yr) and Oman (-0,4km/yr).

Two thirds of the water still comes from natural aquifers. In Abu Dhabi, as per some estimates, 20km³ of freshwater was accounted for by such aquifers as of 2006, while the annual consumption was 2.2 km³. This means that the aquifers will be completely depleted by 2015 in the absence of further reduction of water use by the agricultural sector. A news report by Reuters noted that Saudi Arabia is planning to rely on food imports entirely by 2016.

(The author is start-up manager of TS Prototype- Creation. He may be contacted at trueschool (at) fastmail.fm; www.prototype-creation.de)


  1. ‘Status of Coral Reefs of the Persian/Arabian Gulf and the Arabian Sea region’
  2. Conservation of Coral Reefs in the Persian Gulf by Dr Christophe-Tourenq
  3. According to the Material-Input-per-Service concept or MIPS
  4. Geography of Saudi Arabia (Wikipedia)
  5. Rainfine Irrigation Solutions
  6. Irrigation in Saudi Arabia’ (Wikipedia)
  7. Water Demand Management in Saudi Arabia by Walid A Abderrahman (2001)
  8. The World’s Water by Pacific Institute. 2008. pp. Tables 1 and 2. Retrieved 2009-01-28.
  9. Abu Dhabi water resource statistics 2006
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Category: Water

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